A week ago Sunday one of the budding young men in our body asked me an astute question (put here in my words): “Why should someone abstain (‘fast’) from communion before receiving baptism?” I so appreciate his inquiry! Let me take just a moment and briefly outline why I think it is wise, and even necessary, for baptism to precede communion in the life of a Christian.
We should begin by considering the nature of communion. What is communion? Communion, or the Lord’s supper, is a regular, symbolic, meaningful “meal” eaten by the church together “in remembrance” of the Lord Jesus Christ and his work on the cross (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). It is the New Covenant expression of the Old Covenant Passover. It belongs to believers (the covenant people of God) and has no efficacy or impact for those who do not follow Jesus – except as a testimony to them of their need and a warning of their rebellion. I consider communion to be a means of grace among the body of believers. In other words, the Spirit uses communion to work things in us he will not do in other ways. In the best of circumstances, when we permit or invite someone to join us in communion we concurrently recognize that individual as a fellow disciple of Jesus.
With that understanding of communion as a background, consider how baptism functions in the life of a believer. You may recall some months ago when we addressed baptism during our Sunday morning sermon. On that occasion, I described the “what” of baptism in the following terms:
1) Christian baptism is a bodily act of worship, a symbolic washing with water that glorifies Jesus by identifying us with him; and it is an experience of joy in which we taste the love of God.
2) Baptism by water is a faith-driven, God-worked act of identification, whereby Jesus – through the ministry of his church – publicly marks-out those whom he has saved, and ushers them into a tangible experience of God’s love.
Baptism is something we (the church) do, through which Jesus marks an individual as his disciple, based on their confession of faith, indicative of God’s work to predestine, call, justify, and eventually glorify them (see Romans 8:29-30). Baptism does not save anyone. Rather, it acknowledges what has already taken place in the life of a person – namely their conversion from self to Christ; from sin to salvation; from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. A person may be saved (and often is) well before their baptism, but the confessionof that conversion – the public expression of their faith and obedience to Christ – is incomplete apart from baptism. The unbaptized person among us is someone we have not yet recognized in the fullness of a walk after Jesus. Of note, the Bible has no category (so to speak) for a persistently unbaptized follower of Jesus Christ. The New Testament assumes, and demonstrates repeatedly, that baptism is the normal expression of devotion to Jesus as his disciple.
Now, let me see if I can put these two concepts together – communion and baptism. Communion is a celebration that belongs to the church; a celebration in which the Spirit works and through which we affirm each other’s obedience to Jesus as his disciple. Does it make sense for us to recognize someone publicly, through communion, as a follower of Jesus apart from their own willingness to declare that faith (and the church’s willingness to affirm it) in baptism? If the confession of a person’s conversion (both by themselves and the body of Christ) is incomplete before baptism, why would we pre-emptively recognize that conversion by fellowshipping with someone in communion? Why would we encourage someone in their partial pursuit of Jesus by accepting them in communion before they are willing to follow him in baptism?
What I’ve outlined above is a brief theological defense for why believers should obey Jesus in baptism before celebrating him in communion. To this theological argument I might also add practical reasons of pastoral practice in a local church, one of which I’ll mention here. By encouraging baptism before communion, we help to guard the importance and sanctity of baptism. Particularly in the pragmatic, individualistic, consumeristic culture we inhabit – one that generally lacks edifying symbols of real substance and meaning – it’s easy for the church to slowly lose the importance of baptism. It’s easy for us to view baptism as an “if I feel like it” step of personal faith that I can take or leave, rather than a consequential step of obedience to Jesus that is centralto the Christian life. By encouraging (even requiring) one another to refrain from communion before baptism, we wisely exhort each other to obey Jesus in full; to offer up our bodies a living sacrifice to God, receiving from him the blessing that is baptism; baptism with its God-spoken, church-recognized affirmation that our faith is real and salvific in nature.
Just to demonstrate that what I’ve outlined here is not contrary to the practice of Jesus’ people through the ages, consider the early church. Everett Ferguson, writing in Church History: Volume One – From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, describes how the church approached baptism and the eucharist (what we call communion, or the “Lord’s supper”). While different churches in different places may have had somewhat different practices, here’s how Ferguson depicts the early church’s Sunday worship: “Perhaps by the end of the third century there was a separation of two parts of the service. The first part centered on instruction in the Word, to which all were welcome. The second part centered on the Lord’s supper, to which only baptized believers not under discipline were admitted” (Ferguson, 151). In short, what I’ve outlined above stands consistent with the practice of the church, or at least portions of the church, even in its earliest days.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! I hope this has proven helpful to you. It is, I trust, an effort toward biblical wisdom. There is no proof text of Scripture that demands what I’ve argued for. But, the flow of God’s Word, the examples we read of in the New Testament, and the longstanding historic practice of the church all combine to make the point.